1919 Black Sox: In Joe Jackson’s Defense

In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were accused of accepting bribes from gamblers to lose the World Series.  Though something was definitely up and money did exchange hands, it’s unsure how many of the players were actually involved.  But the commissioner at the time, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, operated with a sword rather than a scalpel and banished all of the players from the sport, possibly conspiring with owners to do so.  The event was known as the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This is Part II

Thanks to the gift of hindsight, we know a lot more about the situation than Jackson did at the time.

The long and the short of it is that a lot of people who claimed to be working in Jackson’s favor ended up working against him.  Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, White Sox Owner Charlie Comiskey and even Comiskey’s attorney hired for the players, Alfred Austrian.  And, eventually, Jackson himself.

Comiskey was a legendary cheap jerk.  But all other owners at the time were too, that wasn’t unusual, and the legends of Comiskey’s penny-pinching–docking pay from the players to pay for cleaning clothes–may not have been true.

It should also be known that players had been gambling and losing games intentionally long before 1919:

1877 – After a great run early in the season, the Louisville Grays mysteriously lost seven games in a row. An investigation revealed that gamblers had bought off George Hall, Bill Craver, Al Nichols and Jim Devlin, and National League founder William A. Hulbert banned all four from baseball. The players claimed they threw the games because their owner had failed to meet payroll obligations and begged for forgiveness, but Hulbert would hear none of it and the players were never reinstated.

Up to that point, though, gambling was sometimes swept under the rug because the press about it was embarrassing. There may have even been gambling scandals in 1917 and 1918. So when the 1919 World Series was fixed and the rumors didn’t stop spreading into the 1920 season, it was all that much worse for the National Commission, the governing body for handing out fines and enforcing rules off the field.

After the rumors of the 1919 fix became too loud to ignore, the National Commission was disbanded and a new one created, featuring the NL and AL presidents and a new position, Commissioner, as overseer.  Federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis was appointed as the new Chairman by the AL and NL presidents and he came in with a bang.

With at least two players having undisputed roles in orchestrating a huge scandal to throw the World Series and the possibility of his entire team–the same team that had just reached the World Series two of the last three years and was competing for the 1920 AL pennant–being kicked out of the sport, he had a lot to lose.  But even worse, he could have lost the sport itself, if there was anything mentioned about why they took the money.

So he hired a lawyer for his players in the grand jury.  Alfred Austrian.  Who was instructed to protect the organization above all else.

If you read that transcript, you can see something’s up.

From the transcript:

Q       Did you make any intentional errors yourself that day?

A       No, sir, not during the whole series.

Q       Did you bay [sic] to win?

A       Yes.

Q       And run the bases to win?

A       Yes, sir.

Q       and fielded the balls at the outfield to win?

A       I did.

[Ed. note: The second question may have meant “play to win,” unless there’s some crazy 1919 lingo there]

Yep.  He claims in his 1920 grand jury testimony that he accepted a bribe before the 1919 World Series to lose and then didn’t actually play to lose. Try to make sense of that.

It gets worse.

In the 1921 trial, Jackson and the rest of the team were acquitted.  In 1924, Jackson sued Comiskey for breach of contract for firing him and won.  And then, just to make things more confusing, Jackson, in a different 1924 case, claimed to receive the $5,000 after the series was over. Also, Joe was never part of the meetings with gamblers, something his teammates later said in his defense.

Perhaps the strangest turn of all is that the landmark book about the scandal and the trial, Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book “Eight Men Out,” which is one of the reasons Jackson is looked at as one of the conspirators, wasn’t so truthful:

The primary support for Asinof’s claim that they deliberately threw games is in contemporaneous press accounts of the grand jury proceedings, which were based on second- or third-hand, and, in some cases, clearly false information.

Asinof, who writes in great detail about the gambler-fixers, may have, himself, been playing the ultimate bluff. He did not release his research during his lifetime and also suggested in “8MO” that his story was based upon exclusive, never-before-seen evidence.

In reality, the lack of any solid, direct evidence in his notes, as well as the lack of a single footnote in “8MO,” strongly suggests that his story was largely fiction.

Direct evidence, such as “Shoeless” Joe’s performance during the 1919 Series and his repeated denials of wrongdoing, suggest nothing more than Joe’s bad judgment in taking money from his teammate and roommate, Williams, and not being more aggressive and timely in reporting his suspicion of the “fix” to Comiskey, White Sox Secretary (General Manager) Harry Grabiner, or William “Kid” Gleason, the White Sox manager in 1919.

Additionally, Asinof made up a character, Harry F., and cited him as a source.  Yeesh, even the accounts of the scandal are scandalous.

Gene Carney, author of “Burying the Black Sox,” which came out two years ago, comes up with two interesting new items.  One, that Jackson, at one point, attempted to bring the money to Comiskey and was turned away–something the jury in the 1924 civil case agreed with.

Jackson never did anything wrong in the game. (Or if he did, he was much more subversive about it than his teammates, who admitted to the wrong-doing and made clear mistakes at the plate and in the field.)  He hit .375 in the eight games, best of either team, and had the only home run in the seriesHe fielded 30 balls and made no errors.

And in 1949, Jackson told his full story:

Baseball failed to keep faith with me. When I got notice of my suspension three days before the 1920 season ended — it came on a rained-out day — it read that if found innocent of any wrongdoing, I would be reinstated. If found guilty, I would be banned for life. I was found innocent, and I was still banned for life. [Ed. note: He wasn’t found innocent, he was acquitted]

It was never explained to me officially, but I was told that Judge Landis had said I was banned because of the company I kept. I roomed with Claude [Lefty] Williams, the pitcher, one of the ringleaders, they told me, and one of the eight White Sox players banned. But I had to take whoever they assigned to room with me on the road. I had no power over that.

Obviously Jackson is unreliable (pick a reason), but there’s some weird stuff going on here. Landis decided to ban any player with even a whiff of dirt on him–Buck Weaver, sadly, was also made a victim with too little evidence.

Let’s just admit this entire situation was completely insane and Landis may have done the smartest and dumbest thing possible.

So why would Comiskey set up his best player–his $50,000 investment–to confess the entire thing during the grand jury testimony?  Why wouldn’t Jackson just take the fifth amendment and call it at that?  Why did he admit to it?  Why of all players was Jackson on the stand?

Well, that’s the funny part.  Jackson wanted to take the stand.  He offered to.  He was coached on what to say, says Carney, and never mentioned anything about bringing the money to Comiskey or anything.

In all of the information out there, there are two things that are consistent from start to finish:

  • Jackson received the money from Lefty Williams
  • Jackson played very well in the series
  • Jackson wasn’t part of the inner circle and didn’t attend the meetings

Jackson was known for not being bright–almost to the extent that people completely underestimated his intelligence.  But the conclusion reached may be as stupid as Jackson thinking he could play as well as he did and keep the money.

Carney comes up with this:

Then we have a bunch of statements from 1925 to the end of his life.  He maintained that he played to win.  Never tried to cover up the fact that he took and kept “dirty” money.  Maintained respect for Commy and also for Landis — as if he understood that the Judge was just doing his job (he was).

Well … there you go.  Maybe its just that weird.

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Filed under baseball scandals, MLB history

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